Take a Letter

Although I am of the generation of the protagonists in the current "in" TV show, Mad Men, I don't believe I do or am capable of sharing their workplace practices. I haven't seen a drink consumed in this office during business hours in 33 years. And while there was a time a good many years ago that tobacco products were consumed on the premises, that is no longer the case. [I do have reason to believe, however, that after 5:00 pm the cleaning people smoke cigars in my office leaving ashes and butts and that almost tangible, rich, exhilarating odor. . . . . . Sorry, I got distracted there for a minute.]

And the show's relationship between ad execs and staff differs markedly from what I am used to. The Mad Men characters, smug and self-centered, literally to a man, treat their staff and secretaries like indentured servants. And that's on a good day. That, thankfully, has not been my experience.

On the contrary, I have, for the past twenty-five years responded to the directions of Lori Coliacovo Della Camera, my personal secretary. It has been a relationship which she has endured and from which I have and continue to benefit. Lori, then Coliacovo, began to work for our firm when she was about eighteen. Just out of Quinnipiac with a Secretarial Degree, she worked first with another attorney in our office. When my then-secretary responded to Cupid's call and opted for marriage over typing, the call went out internally for a replacement. There was a dearth of responses. Ms. Coliacovo drew the short straw.

Those were the days, some may remember, when secretaries and staff-indeed, perhaps, a bit like the Mad Men staff-came to work all gussied up, high heels, hair-do's and all. Times have changed. As the now-Mrs. Della Camera informs me, she was then young, new and working for a partner and was a bit intimidated for two weeks. I do not remember that to be so. What I know is that, on the contrary I have been under her thumb and watchful eye since the very beginning.

Mrs. Della Camera is a woman of many talents. She does all the normal secretarial things---typing, filing, calendaring, scheduling and the like. But anyone can do that. Those are learned skills. What Lori does, though, is exceptional. She thinks and consistently exercises extraordinarily good judgment. Hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. Which calls to put through; which to hold. Which letter to revise before I say something I'll regret. Which brief or memorandum is illogical or incomprehensible and needs revision. How and whom to cajole to get the document, continuance or response I really need. How to mend broken fences with nervous clients I don't have time to call.

While Lori has an active and intense interest in my work, she is not shy about expressing her opinions about the quality of my representation. "Who did you send to jail today" is a question frequently asked. "You charged him how much? You should be ashamed of yourself." In my fee letters she often adds her own paragraph advising clients they can find less expensive and better representation elsewhere just to see if I catch it before signing.

So I wonder where does this attitude come from. Could it be my comments that it often appears she types with her knuckles? Or maybe a reaction to my complaint that if I only had a decent staff I could actually become a good lawyer? It might just be because I refuse to admit it's my fault when I dictate the wrong letter to the wrong person and she catches it. Whatever.

Obviously, I am very fortunate to have for a quarter of a century a conscientious, extremely intelligent and dedicated supervisor masking as a secretary who makes it possible for me to practice law. I literally could not practice without her guidance.

I have highlighted her many qualities but neglected to mention her greatest strength: she knows how to tell me when I'm getting too big for my britches. Perhaps a story-a true story-- will illustrate.

One afternoon I leave my desk to talk to Lori. She isn't at her desk. I return back 5 minutes later. She isn't there. I am irked. Back again. Still not there. Now I'm miffed. I page her. No response. Now I'm po'd. Finally she's there. At her desk. On the phone. I blow up. "Where were you? I need to know where you are. You just can't disappear like that." She puts down the phone, looks up and patiently explains, "Tell you what. From now on I'll just give you a signal when I'm at my desk", and she holds up the middle finger her left hand. Point made. Ego readjusted.

Thanks, Lori, for twenty five years of good judgment and many doses of reality.